Was Abner Doubleday Really the Originator?
By Tom Helgesen
NCSA Member #592
It seems that controversy still rages over the origins of baseball. In 1991 the Baseball Hall of Fame was delighted to hear about a baseball notice that is the earliest known printed reference to organized baseball in America. The July 13, 1825 edition of the "Delhi (N.Y.) Gazette" (on microfilm) has a notice listing the names of nine men challenging any group in Delaware County to a game of baseball at the home of Edward B. Chace for $1 per game. (The notice came from Hamden, New Jersey.) The Baseball Hall of Fame hopes to send a student to search the microfilm records of the "Delhi Gazette" to see what else might be contained in its pages to shed light on Mr. Chase and his nine ball players.
Abner Doubleday was the first to be officially recognized as the creator of baseball. A turn-of-the-century national baseball panel awarded the honor to Doubleday on the strength of a letter from an old schoolmate claiming Abner devised the rules for the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. Although his name has stuck with the public, Doubleday was long ago shorn of this honor by historians who examined the evidence.
Tom Heitz of the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, said in a phone interview recently that the Hall of Fame recognizes September, 1845 as the time when the rules of the game we know as baseball were first set down. They were adopted by the New York Knickerbockers, led by a bank clerk named Alexander Cartwright. The following June in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Knickerbockers played the first organized baseball game between two teams using the new rules. The controversy as it turns out is actually more a rivalry between cities vying for the distinction as the birthplace of baseball.
What is still not well understood, however, is the origins of the game before 1845 -- the period referred to by the Hall as early baseball. Historians have found references to early forms of baseball in the New York cities such as Rochester and Geneso in the 1820's. Organized clubs played in Philadelphia and the New York Cityarea in the 1830's. Evidence has been found of early baseball in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and other northeastern states. Although called baseball, most of the games were experiments with different rules and methods of play that may or may not resemble the game we know today.
Mr. Heitz said the Hall of Fame would be very interested in hearing of any baseball references prior to September, 1846 unearthed by NCSA members. The Hall knows what happened after that date but would like to know more about the precursors of baseball before that date -- what rules were used, who played earlier forms and where and when.
There's also an interesting twist for our English friends to look into. In 1748 a Lady Hervey wrote a letter in which she describes family activities of Frederick, Prince of Wales. She refers to family members "diverting themselves in baseball, a play all who are or have been schoolboys are well acquainted with." Was this game like the baseball we know today? If it was a common school yard game as she implies, would there be references to it elsewhere? Perhaps in newspapers? There have been some scant references to baseball as far back as the American Revolution and England in the early 1700's.